B.J. Hackler liked to stay busy.
He belonged to the St. Joseph Tea-Totalers, a group of residents who meet in the afternoons for a glass of tea.
Volunteered for years with the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce.
Served on committees at the St. Joseph United Methodist Church.
Was a member of the St. Joseph American Legion.
Helped serve as a drainage district commissioner.
He traveled. He fished.
He visited friends in his “man cave” he built in his backyard.
He helped friends in their businesses and decorate their Christmas trees.
And he liked to visit the village hall where he worked as mayor of St. Joseph for 36 years. A friendly face was a welcome sight to those who knew him so well.
“Chief would come by the office at least a couple of times a week to check in with us girls,” said Julie Hendrickson, the village’s office manager.
Hendrickson said the two would often discuss the Illini basketball team and the players and their individual performances and if there were cookies in the office Hackler would be sure to take a few.
“For those that didn’t know Chief was a cookie monster,” Hendrickson said. “Chief always made me laugh because if you made cookies or whatever and shared, he always would come back with something for you.”
After stopping by, Hackler would often take the office staff to lunch.
“We would tell him often he didn’t need to buy our lunch,” Hendrickson said. “Just getting the opportunity to visit with him was enough for us. Working for him for so many years and having him as a dear friend has truly been a blessing in my life.”
Hackler, the long-time mayor of St. Joseph from 1981 until he retired in 2017, died on Tuesday after a battle with a short illness. He was 83 years old.
Current St. Joseph Mayor Tami Fruhling-Voges said the loss of Hackler is difficult for the tight-knit community to comprehend.
“B.J. has been such a big part of this community for so long,” Fruhling-Voges said, “it’s going to be really hard to even think about St. Joseph without expecting to see him somewhere about town.”
The amicable Hackler was always looking to the future, Fruhling-Voges said.
In 2004, he approached Fruhling-Voges about serving on the St. Joseph village board. She said she wasn’t sure if she was qualified for the position.
“But B.J. and a close friend were very convincing that I would be a good fit and would enjoy the challenge,” she said. “It wasn’t long after serving on the board for a couple of years that I realized that B.J. had other plans for my future.”
Hackler appointed Fruhling-Voges Mayor Pro Tem and started mentoring her for the position he had held for 30-plus years.
“It was always a pleasure attending functions with B.J. and amazing to watch him work the room,” said Fruhling-Voges, who became mayor after Hackler retired. “It didn’t matter if we were here at home, Chicago or Springfield. Everyone seemed to know B.J.”
Fruhling-Voges said having Hackler introduce her to his friends and other elected officials has been a huge help now that she is mayor.
“I’m thankful for the many years that I was able to serve on the board with B.J. and honored that he trusted me to continue the work that he devoted so much of his life,” she said. “B.J. made people smile, and he made it his life’s mission to always take care of people. I believe those probably are the two greatest factors that made him everyone’s favorite mayor and a cherished friend”
St. Joseph residents Luke and Marlo Fisher said Hackler was a dear friend who shared his love of fishing with their daughter, Hannah.
“When Hannah caught her first fish and really started liking fishing,” Marlo said, “there was no one more excited, other than her daddy, then B.J.”
Hackler gave Hannah items to fill her tackle box and bought her a t-shirt that read “Daddy’s Fishing Buddy.”
“He wanted to go fishing with her and Luke sometime,” Marlo said. “Although we didn’t get that fishing date, we will forever think of B.J. every time we go fishing.”
Family friend Alicia Maxey said they considered Hackler family.
“We will never forget the time he spent with us,” she said. “He would just pop in and brighten our day with his smile and good humor. He was even a part of our holidays- helping to decorate our Christmas tree with our grandkids Reagan and Ethan.”
Hendrickson said Hackler’s caring nature was just who he was.
“He was always willing to lend a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on or just listen to me vent,” she said.
Hendrickson said St. Joseph has Hackler to thank for its expansion and solid reputation in the state.
“I personally feel that St. Joseph is the community it is today because of the Chief,” she said. “He worked diligently for 36 years to help mold and shape this community.”
Hackler also worked diligently as a leader at the St. Joseph United Methodist Church, serving on numerous committees and volunteering during the church’s Feed the Need event.
He also took care to make sure the Pastor, Gene Turner, was taking care of himself so he could lead the congregation in the best possible way.
Nine months after becoming pastor, Turner said Hackler walked into his office and announced they needed to have a word.
“As a pastor, I’d heard that statement before, and it had never been because someone was happy or had something positive to say,” Turner said. “That day was different.”
Hackler was concerned Turner was working too much.
“B.J. asked me, ‘Are you taking your Sabbath day off?’ Then he stood in front of my desk and looked at me,” Turner said.
Turner tried find an answer that would appease Hackler and soothe his own conscience.
Hackler then said he didn’t want excuses and he knew Turner was working on the day he was supposed to take off. Hackler said he understood Turner had a lot to do but he needed to take time off for himself in order to be his best and lead the congregation well. He then invited Turner to his “man cave” to talk if he needed to.
“He was firm, but I knew that he loved me and cared for me as his Pastor,” Turner said. “That was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given in ministry.”
Hackler dedicated his life to serving his community.
He won eight elections for mayor and served as a village trustee for 10 years before that. He also served two years as president of the Central Illinois Municipal Officials Association, for 14 years on the Illinois Municipal League Executive and Nominating Committees, and for four years on the Federal EPA Local Government Advisory Committee.
Luke Fisher, the assistant public works superintendent for St. Joseph, said Hackler wasn’t just a family friend, but a mentor.
“Whether it was for public works, politics, family, fishing or just life, he was there to listen and offer advice,” Luke said. “He was a true friend, icon, and advocate for St. Joseph. He will be missed dearly.”
Former St. Joseph village trustee Andy Gherna said Hackler was a wealth of information.
“He was very assuring in the face of what at first glance was daunting,” Gherna said. “He trusted the trustees. My biggest takeaway from my time on the board when he was mayor was that everyone should be listened to and considered before casting a vote.”
Turner said he was always impressed with how Hackler could get two people who were on completely different sides of an issue to meet, talk and when they left the meeting, both felt like they were heard and “won” even if they didn’t get what they wanted.
“BJ himself was like that. Even if things didn’t go the way he felt they should, he would be as supportive as he could possibly be,” Turner said. “He modeled graciousness, compassion, empathy, and faith in practical ways that touched those he interacted with deeply and profoundly. My ministry and my life are better for having met BJ and having the privilege and joy of being his pastor and friend.”
Hendrickson said while Hackler loved the community he led for more than three decades, the real love of his life was his wife, Dixie, and their family.
The Hacklers were married on Oct. 27, 1961.
Soon after they wed, they moved to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., while B.J. served in the army. They had their first daughter, Traci, while in Colorado. In 1964, the Hacklers moved back to St. Joseph where they had their second daughter, Tonya.
“Chief would say that his most precious gift in life was his wife, his girls, along with all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Hendrickson said.
Family friend Rick Ingram agreed. Ingram met the Hacklers in 1978 when he purchased his first home in St. Joseph, right across the street from the Hacklers. BJ came over almost immediately to introduce himself and offer any assistance that he could.
“Little did I know that would be the beginning of a fantastic friendship,” Ingram said.
Ingram said he and Hackler soon bonded and decided to take up downhill skiing. They joined the Champaign Ski Club and went on several weekend trips in the Midwest with the group, as well as their own trips when given the chance.
“BJ loved the friendships he developed while sliding down a mountainside on two sticks, and even made at least one trek to Switzerland with the club to quench this passion and make new friends,” Ingram said. “B.J. and I also coordinated a motorcoach ski trip out to Snowshoe, West Virginia for the club. All had a great time.”
In 1987, Ingram, B.J. and four friends decided to go to the Indianapolis 500.
“Little did we know that this would start a yearly tradition that lasted through 2019,” Ingram said. “We had great times and formed a lot of great memories at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Ingram’s fondest memory of his friend included more travel—this time to Jamaica. When Ingram and his wife Jean decided to get married, Ingram immediately asked B.J. to be his best man. The Hacklers flew to Jamaica to witness the vows.
“We had boarded the plane and sat, for hours, waiting our turn to depart,” Ingram said. “Our plane had developed mechanical problems. BJ, known for his naps, took one on the plane. When he woke up a short time later, his humour came into play once again when he exclaimed rather loudly, ‘Wow! This is a smooth flight!’ and we had yet to leave the tarmac in Chicago.”
Dixie died in 2020. Before she passed away, Dixie and B.J. had spent his retirement from public office traveling.
Beth Mills, the owner of Travel by Beth in St. Joseph, used to live across the street from the Hacklers. Later, through their shared love of travel, Beth and her husband, John, became friends with the Hacklers.
The Hacklers traveled to Ireland on a group trip Mills organized.
“B.J. and Dixie were amazing to travel with,” Mills said. “They had such energy, of course, and it was also clear that they had a wonderful marriage. I think just about everyone thought they were the cutest couple.”
Mills said the Hacklers also took a group trip to Jamaica and were planning a trip to Scotland before Dixie’s death.
“Dixie told him that she wanted him to keep traveling so he was looking forward to another trip to Jamaica and was keeping an eye on our Italy group trip,” Mills said. “Sadly, COVID altered his travel plans in 2020. I wish that we would have had at least one more trip together.”
Mills said she, like many others, would miss seeing Hackler around the town he devoted so much of his life to.
“One of my friends who traveled with B.J. to Ireland said it best: ‘My heart is breaking, but it’s happy at the same time now that he is reunited with Dixie,’” Mills said. “That just goes to show you how much they both touched others.”